Party Lines

Yesterday, as I was typing this story, a phone call came through my computer screen. I didn’t even realize that I’d answered until I heard a voice say, “Hello”. A friend had called. We chatted while I pulled up the internet to look at a piece of furniture she was thinking of buying. Say what you want about technology, I thought it was amazing and let’s face it…it is!

For instance, one weekend, I watched the last royal wedding with two close friends. We conferenced in. Occasionally, we’d call out a bad hat and laugh, but most of the time we were silent. Simply watching young royals on their big day and doing so in unison. It didn’t matter that they were in three different cities. We were together and I had unlimited minutes. I had to keep reminding myself that we could stay on as long as we wanted. I propped my cell phone up and put my feet up. Drinking tea and eating scones, the call was decadent and hands free.

When I was a kid, we had one phone. It was black and shiny and hung from the wall in our kitchen. A rotary dial. You had to spin a hard plastic circle with a finger that hurt slightly when you twirled it. A never-ending cord wrapped you up like a boa constrictor. If you could get it untangled, you might be able to stretch it to just inside the door jamb of the living room. Otherwise, you tried to talk and extricate yourself from the coiling black creature at the same time.

Our phone line was a “party line”. One line between rural neighbors for a discounted rate. This was inconvenient. It always happened when you really needed to make a call. You’d pick the receiver up and hear a neighbor talking. If you didn’t hang up in 2 seconds you’d get yelled at. Or if you were making a call, you might hear breathing and know that someone was listening in.

Mother loved to talk and was never hesitant to pick up the receiver. Calling whomever she liked for as long as she liked. She hated the “party line”. The phone company believed it more efficient, but my mother believed it was punishment for living out in the boondocks. She didn’t like people knowing “her business” but didn’t hesitate to listen when something juicy was being said. There never really was. Only Mrs. Nichols talking to her daughter about the blight on her tomatoes. “Not ever anything good,” she’d say cupping the receiver with her hand. Still she didn’t hang up. Not right away.

A young woman in her thirties, life was terribly boring. She wanted to talk to people! A deeply conservative farming community made up of older men and women wasn’t exactly what she’d had in mind. She was a city girl. I knew this because deep down so was I. The phone was a lifeline. We were a far cry from civilization and for that cry to be heard, we had to use the telephone. I can still see my mother. Her bare feet propped up on a chair in the middle of some good gossip, sighing and rolling her eyes. Saying, “Sorry Mrs. Nichols, I’ll be off in a second…” Then she’d say to whomever she was talking to, “I’ve gotta go. There’s a neighbor trying to break in.”

Mom could be on the phone for hours. Her wifely and motherly duties often neglected. Dinners late to the table and then rushed and cold. School projects neglected. Chores put off. She couldn’t stop herself. The phone was one of the few luxuries my stay-at-home mom of four enjoyed.

Dad was constantly saying, “Betty, get off the damn phone!” He hated the phone and, more so, hated her on it. Also, back then, phone bills could be outrageous. Her’s usually were and the bill usually caused a fight. Cost didn’t deter her need, however. On more than one occasion Dad threatened to yank the phone from the wall. More than the cost, I think he was a bit jealous. We all were. She wasn’t a happy woman. We watched her, though, happily entertaining someone at the other end of the line. Ever talking sweetly to a faceless person. Anyone, but us.

After 20 years of this, my family had a communication breakdown and it revolved around more than simply the phone. Mom has passed. Dad has dementia. The shouting has died and we are all in different places. Two words come to mind: Long distance.

Dad’s still hates the phone and doesn’t call. Suddenly, I’m facing the reality that time is not on anybody’s side. Any day now, I might get a different phone call. So, on occasion I swallow my pride and call him.

He rarely picks up. If I’m lucky his wife answers. She is sweet and asks obligatory questions: how are you, how’s your job, are you enjoying (fill in the blank…person, place or thing). Then she says, “Let me get your dad.” I hear muffled arguing, but eventually she has her way and forces him onto the phone.

There are long silences and I know he’s trying to think of things to say or he’s simply drifted off thinking about some weird place on his arm. My mind used to spin like a rolodex trying to land on talking points. Now, like a late-night host, I prepare. I write down questions trying to prompt him. Doesn’t matter. He’s the worst talk show guest ever. How is your cow? Dead. How are you feeling? Like I’m dying. What about the neighbor across the street? She’s dead. Died years ago.

It’s not only my dad. The same is true with the rest of my family. My cellphone rarely pops up with any of their names. If it does, I hold my breath to answer. Knowing that one of these calls will be about the death of a cousin or a favorite aunt or dad. Anyway, the news is usually not that good.

Personal questions about me or my life are never asked. There is not much curiousity. Not about my recent move across the country. Not the about the breakup with my live-in boyfriend. Not the boyfriend. Never the boyfriend.

Then there are the dreaded topics of politics and religion. Party lines are drawn along party lines. Like so many families, many of them have circled the wagons around their beliefs and judgements. They simply don’t want to talk about it. You can knock and knock on that door, but you ain’t getting in. It doesn’t do any good to press the issue of closer relationships. As a sibling once said, “What do you want to talk about? We are all such different people”. There is no tether. No chord. When we talk, if we talk, we are talking into the air. Around all the issues. Far from the ground.

They do still, some of them, text. I should be grateful. Even these few words, though, are beginning to dwindle. From the younger ones, I mostly get emojis of a smiley face or some vegetable or sparkling unicorn which is supposed to communicate God knows what. From the older ones, occasionally, I’ll get a picture. A niece graduating or another family gathering I wasn’t invited to. Pictures, I suppose, are meant to communicate everything now. I suppose they do. By my absence in them.

What happened to the phone call? The landline? I miss it. Mom would’ve loved the technology but would’ve missed real conversations. I think she liked the act of it all. There is something to being tethered to the wall. Focus. Intimacy. Tying up in the words. The breathing. The pause. The lilt of someone’s voice rising and falling. Connection. Isn’t that what we used to do? Connect?

Something in this is the clue to what’s happening to us all. There are so many tools available to us, but we still must use our mouths and our ears. With that we still must talk and listen. Will there be a time when even that will fall away?

If family and family seem distant, well, that’s because we are. If we don’t hear from each other, well, that means we don’t want to listen. If we can’t find the words, that’s because we are out of practice. I still have hope that we might, one day, be wrapped up once again. Propped up and passing the time. Listening intently to the sounds of our own voices. Connecting.

Like my mother, I like to talk. The bell hasn’t fallen that far from that particular phone tree. To the most cynical, I plan to keep at it. Even if the world would rather go another way. When you see my name pop up on your phone. Answer it. At times like these it is good to remind ourselves that we are, all of us, literally — are just a phone call away.

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A southern boy raised by wolves and angels. Stories are based in truth, but bent for entertainment

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Waylon Wood

Waylon Wood

A southern boy raised by wolves and angels. Stories are based in truth, but bent for entertainment

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